A childhood in the English countryside

A Childhood Exploring the English Countryside

In Expat Musings by Stacy

It’s pouring down rain as I type. From a glorious week of sunshine and 70 degree weather, we’ve now dropped into the 50s with rain and winds forecasted for the foreseeable future. But that’s ok. The past few days were worth it. It’s a snapshot of our lives I will cherish years from now as I recount tales of our time in the U.K. to my children. It is days like these that will be my fondest memories of our time here. My kids are spending their childhood exploring the English countryside.

Poppies

It started with the poppies. Ask me four years ago what a poppy was and I’d reference the seeds used in baking or the poppy fields in Afghanistan that produce opium. But the meaning, and variant, here in the U.K. is completely different. Poppies are technically a weed, but in late spring/early June they bloom into gorgeous red flowers. They pop up everywhere. Along fence lines, curbsides, scattered in a field of weeds—these beautiful, vibrant flowers appear across the countryside.


Since World War I, the red-flowered poppies of Europe have come to be a symbol of remembrance. Poppy pins are worn across the U.K. each November on Remembrance Sunday to commemorate those who’ve died in war. The poem, ‘In Flanders Field’ captures the symbolism and emotion the flower evokes:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

This vibrant, joyous flower is a poignant reminder that despite tragedy and sorrow, life does go on. In the midst of death and destruction, beauty emerges. So much meaning in one little flower. And I love it. I’m brimming with emotion each Spring as I see the first poppies blooming along the roadside. It means summer is almost upon us. There’s joy and anticipation with the warm weather finally returning. My restless kids can finally run free and play outside until late in the evening. And as I watch them running through fields dotted with poppies the haunting words of the poem echo in my head. “Celebrate life” they whisper from barren fields and overgrown gardens as they sway in the breeze.

a childhood exploring the english countryside, poppies

a childhood exploring the english countryside, poppies

While stray poppies are scattered throughout our town and everywhere we go, we often drive half an hour or more to find a full field of poppies. But this year, we discovered a huge field just minutes from our house. And we went at sunset. And it was perfect.

Priories

The poppy field at sunset was Saturday evening. The following morning we went to church and then headed to a classic car show as an early Father’s Day gift for my husband. The oldest two kids wandered off to get their faces painted while I chased after my toddler determined to pet every dog at the car show (everyone except us had brought their dog).

a childhood exploring the english countryside, antique car showAll three of my boys were fast asleep before we’d even left the car park to head home. It was a gorgeous afternoon, so instead of heading back to our house, we obliged my daughter’s requests to return to Castle Acre Priory. She’d been begging to go back ever since rediscovering her long lost children’s pamphlet  from our visit to the priory in the Fall. By the time we arrived, her oldest brother was awake and ready to join us on our adventure. While daddy happily agreed to nap in the car with the youngest two, we set out to explore the priory again.

a childhood exploring the english countryside, priory, castle acre, face paint

A painted face at the priory.

My daughter was in charge as we explored. She had memorized much of the information in her pamphlet after relentlessly reading it to us over and over again in the car for the past two weeks. She’d found the pamphlet stashed in the back pouch of the driver’s seat in our van and it had been her preferred reading material for every car ride since. In fact, I’m pretty sure we all know that pamphlet by heart after being read to and quizzed about it for so long.

a childhood exploring the english countryside, priory, castle acre, english heritage, expat, expat life, expat family, englandThe imposing facade of the priory’s West Front is stunning. As sunlight pours down on the facade, the shadow created across the ruins adds to the ambiance. It’s tranquil, overwhelming, majestic. While I take it all in, my kids run happily through each arch, sword fighting along the way. They pick flowers, spin around, and run off to explore something else. It’s not lost on me that my children are frolicking on a thousand years of church history. The first monastery was founded here at the end of the 11th century. Some of the ruins they’re running through date back to the 13th century. Someday they’ll appreciate the breadth of history that has surrounded us on our adventures across the English countryside. But right now, they’re just being kids—on a site that a little over one thousand years ago had just become home to a handful of Cluniac monks.

Unexpected Little Adventures

On Monday, my daughter dutifully returned to school while her brothers and I went out in search of strawberries. The fields were ripe for picking and my sons were happy to fill their baskets with strawberries and then eat as many as possible before we’d even left the farm. Our outing could have ended there, but their mother had noticed another old priory was minutes away from our strawberry farm. After enticing another family to explore with us, we drove the few minutes down the road to Isleham Priory Church.

The priory church is an unassuming old barn right off the main street in Isleham. It is a “free entry” site maintained by English Heritage. The priory’s website is minimal and cryptically states to “contact the key keeper for access”. If intact 12th century Norman chapel hadn’t been enough to entice me to check it out, the quest to find the “key keeper” was certainly an appealing challenge. The priory-converted-to-a-barn surrounded by a garage and a Chinese restaurant was locked up tight with no one around to answer our questions. The English Heritage information plaque in front of the building gave a brief description of the priory’s significance. And sure enough, at the bottom of the plaque was the name and address of a local woman who could be visited to collect the key.

a childhood exploring the english countryside, priory, castle acre, english heritage, expat, expat life, expat family, england, isleham priory churchGoogle Maps showed the address was a residential home about a 7-minute walk from the priory. But the sign had obviously been there for quite awhile. Would Mrs. B still live there? Would she be home if we showed up? Two moms plus five children on a wild goose chase? Before heading out on our quest to find the key keeper, we decided to walk around the priory and make sure there wasn’t an open entrance on the other side. The gate at the side of the priory building opened up to a marked public footpath and our kids eagerly led the way. We’re used to finding sheep on public foot paths, but we shared this public foot path with a family of horses. Two adults, a very young pony, and three juvenile ponies to be exact. The three juvenile ponies were determined to befriend us. They eagerly nudged our sons until the boys stroked their noses. They followed us as we walked around the priory, only to find that there was no entrance from the back side. We may not have found an easy way into the priory, but our boys loved those horses. We stood there, watching the baby horse nursing and playing with her mom. We checked out the remains of earthworks behind the ancient chapel while our little entourage of ponies followed us. They’ll never remember the priory. But they’ll likely remember “that time we found horses when we were searching for the keys to that old barn.” And I’m totally okay with that.

a childhood exploring the english countryside, priory, castle acre, english heritage, expat, expat life, expat family, england, isleham priory church

a childhood exploring the english countryside, priory, castle acre, english heritage, expat, expat life, expat family, england, isleham priory churchWe retrieved the key without difficulty and quizzed the lady at a local pub about the mysterious tunnels I’d found brief reference to online. We knew the tunnels had been closed off for a long time, but we failed to figure out where they might once have been. The priory chapel was as advertised: basically, a super old barn. The fact that the structure contains the original walls built in the 12th century is beyond impressive, but there was little for the kids to explore. And yet, they loved our day out. The adventure to find the key, unlock the old barn, and a surprise encounter with friendly horses made it a wonderful day.

a childhood exploring the english countryside, priory, castle acre, english heritage, expat, expat life, expat family, england, isleham priory church

a childhood exploring the english countryside, priory, castle acre, english heritage, expat, expat life, expat family, england, isleham priory church

a childhood exploring the english countryside, priory, castle acre, english heritage, expat, expat life, expat family, england, isleham priory church

The priory-turned-barn was pretty empty.

Poppies, priories, and unexpected little adventures. These are the days I want to remember forever, the moments that deserve a pause button. And these are the memories of England I hope my kids will retain for a lifetime. It’s pretty awesome to say their childhood was spent exploring the English countryside.